Hezbollah Sends Fighters To Qusayr From Lebanon

Syrian refugees, newly arrived in neighboring Lebanon, are painting a grim picture of the battle for Qusayr. It is under attack by Syrian government troops and Hezbollah militants from Lebanon. There is no water or electricity and little food in the town that still hosts some 15,000 civilians.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

NPR's Kelly McEvers has also been reporting on the fight, and the involvement of Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. She sends this report.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So, we're just on the other side of the border from where Steve just was. We're in Lebanon. We're standing on top of an unfinished house. It's basically bare concrete with rebar sticking up. And I can see into Qusair. Just beyond a berm that forms the border between Lebanon and Syria is the city of Qusair.

We're in a place called Hermel, in Lebanon. It's called the city of martyrs. That's because it is a major stronghold for the militant group Hezbollah. You saw fighters who were fighting against Israel in 2006. And now, lately, you've seen several funerals for fighters who've fighting just over the border, in Qusair.

The latest battle for Qusair started about two weeks ago. Locals here say Hezbollah sent its men from here to take back the town from Syrian rebels who are fighting to bring down Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The idea is to stop the supply of rebel guns and fighters from Lebanon into Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

MCEVERS: At this funeral for three Hezbollah fighters who recently died in Qusair, their comrades celebrate what they believe was an honorable way to die. Judging by the number of these funerals in recent weeks, the fighting in Qusair has been fierce. But in recent days, Syrian government officials and Syrian rebels have said the government and its Hezbollah backers are beginning to gain the upper hand in the Qusair region.

In fact, residents say government and Hezbollah fighters have cleared out most of the villages around Qusair city, taken an airbase outside the city and formed a cordon around the city, trapping civilians and rebel fighters inside.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This woman and her children were caught in the first phase of the battle, the clearing of the villages. They fled their own village, then took refuge in a second village. As the army prepared to take that one, they were caught at a checkpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) I was surprised to see a checkpoint, and I didn't know what to do. I decided to act naturally, because if I'll start running away, they will shoot at me.

MCEVERS: But they shot, anyway.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) So there was a moment of chaos. I was busy with the children. I didn't even notice that Alaa was wounded.

MCEVERS: Alaa is the woman's 14-year-old daughter. Most of her jaw was shot off. It has since been partially reconstructed. She sits to our right.

Is she able to talk?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: You can't understand what she says, they say.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through interpreter) Yeah, half of her tongue is gone.

MCEVERS: Once the Syrian army and its Hezbollah backers cleared the villages around Qusair, they formed a ring around the city, manning that ring with checkpoints and trapping civilians and rebel fighters inside.

EM HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This woman, Em Hassan, left Qusair three days ago. She and her husband and children now live in a building that used to be a slaughterhouse for sheep. Refugees have put up tents on concrete floors over built-in drains for the slaughtered animals' blood. Em Hassan says she first had to sneak out of Qusair city, then had to pay the equivalent of hundreds of dollars to a network of smugglers to reach Lebanon.

HASSAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Rockets hit the house, and they decided to leave.

MCEVERS: Em Hassan's relative is a smuggler who's taking money to get people out of Qusair. He says there are some 15,000 civilians trapped inside the city. He says the few who make it out are the lucky ones.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This video shows a doctor who says he's inside a rebel field hospital in Qusair city. He and his team operate on what looks like a ruined leg. He says the hospital is running out of supplies and running out of blood to treat the hundreds of people who've been injured from rockets, shelling and airstrikes.

ABU OBADA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Abu Obada and his family also recently left Qusair. He tells a roomful of relatives that with no access to food and water inside the city, it could be just days before the Qusair falls. He says the rebels should negotiate some kind of safe passage so civilians can leave. Abu Obada says something changed when the Lebanese Shiite militia, Hezbollah, entered the fight. And it's not just that government troops gained the upper hand in Qusair.

OBADA: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: We Sunnis used to live side by side with our Shiite neighbors, he says, but now that Hezbollah has come to our village, we've had to leave. People say they will burn us and slaughter us with knives. Now it's a sectarian war, Abu Obada says, and we can never again go back to the way it was. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Rima Maroush(ph) contributed to that report. Just this morning, the main Syrian opposition coalition says it has sent 1,000 fighters to join the resistance in Qusair. The coalition has been meeting in Turkey to discuss terms for an internationally guaranteed solution to the conflict. They're demanding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad give up power, and also that a humanitarian corridor be built into the city to help civilians stranded there. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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